Cort VanOstran: Is he the Democrat who can defeat Ann Wagner?

Cort VanOstran is a candidate who is clearly thinking past the August 2018 Democratic primary. When we interviewed him last week, it seemed obvious that VanOstran is less focused on his primary opponents and more on defeating Ann Wagner, the Republican incumbent, in November. However, VanOstran does have to win the primary, and it’s shaping up to be more competitive, as undecideds make up their minds.

His strategy for winning your vote? Hard work. In the days before the August 7th primaries, VanOstran plans to use every last minute to win over voters in Missouri’s Second District with his grassroots campaign. If you live in Missouri’s Second Congressional district, you’ve probably seen a VanOstran sign along the road, or VanOstran himself. His schedule is available on Twitter and Facebook and he can be spotted at any of his public events, knocking on doors, or making phone calls in his field office.

The reason VanOstran is running is largely due to his background, and he sees the current administration in Washington as failing to make decisions that benefit families like his. VanOstran was raised in Joplin by his mother and two siblings, went to public school, attended Harvard on scholarship for his undergraduate degree, and eventually ended up in St. Louis to attend Washington University’s Law School. His drive for success comes from his observations of his mother, and he’d argue that she’s given him an appreciation for hard work.

“My dad passed away when I was eight… he took his own life… That was really the thing in my life that defined my worldview more than anything else,” he explained. VanOstran paused for a moment and ,then started to talk about his mother, as he often does on the campaign trail. “I watched my mom work to make ends meet. I learned a lot about people not always being responsible for the situations that they find themselves in, but I also learned a lot about what strength looks like.”

VanOstran understands what it is like to grow up struggling, and he wants to help families in similar situations find a path to the middle class. He listens well, and seems genuine about being in this line of work to see positive change in the lives of everyday people.

Even though VanOstran is not a native of Missouri’s Second District, he feels the values with which he was raised resonate as “core values’’ that other Missourians hold close to their hearts. He now lives in Clayton. He is especially disappointed with the leadership of Ann Wagner, his current representative. “My mom passed away of breast cancer a couple years ago. For the last couple of years of her life, she had a health that she had purchased through Missouri’s Affordable Care Act Exchange… It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well for my mom…I watched about a year ago, in May 2017, as Ann Wagner voted to cut 23 million people like my mom from their coverage, and that felt like a vote against my family,”  he said. “For me, I was already thinking about the fact that I was represented in Congress by Ann Wagner, somebody that I really didn’t feel shared my values… I said I think we can do much better than that.”

When it comes to the issues, VanOstran takes a progressive stance. He believes in access to quality health care for all, common sense gun laws, making higher education more affordable, and making our government more accountable for its actions. Although the issues he centers his campaign on look very similar to those of his opponents, his legislative solutions are carefully concocted. When asked about health care, VanOstran’s plan is to “…incentivize states like Missouri to expand their Medicaid program…I want to get to Medicare-for-all.” More specifically on Medicare, VanOstran feels that younger people should be allowed to buy into this system as we make the transition to Medicare-for-all. Younger people are typically more healthy and have less need for healthcare, therefore increasing the amount of money in the system to cover the costs of care for older people.

On the issue of gun violence, VanOstran says that legislation in urban areas and more rural areas “…can and should look different…” and seems willing to open dialogue with those who do not share his viewpoint. VanOstran seems to have done his homework on a number of issues, and plans to go into Congress with an outline of his goals and how to achieve them.

While the candidates have almost identical progressive ideas, their different campaign management styles may be the deciding factor for many Democrats. With a race this competitive, there’s an argument that Democrats need to be voting for the person with the best chance of winning against Wagner, and VanOstran argues that he has the best shot at securing this victory.  VanOstran is not shy about talking about how much work he’s put into campaigning, and his intensity seems like he’s running with a personal vendetta against Wagner.

Although he has not even come close to challenging Wagner’s more than $5 million campaign fund, VanOstran thinks he can still win. He contends that money is not the be-all-and-end-all.  “We’ve had a representative for so long who hasn’t shown up and listened and been willing to engage that I think people are hungry for somebody who will do that,” he said. “These are smart voters who want to talk about the issues, so I think that being able to engage with folks makes me a really good fit for this district.”

VanOstran’s detractors would argue that he has been the beneficiary of big money, which is a charge that he resents. According to reports from March, VanOstran has around $522,500. Most of his contributions come from individual donors, although he has taken some money from non-corporate PACs.

“I think PAC money, when it represents a cause or something that I strongly believe in and there’s alignment on the issues, I think that that can just be a form of support from other groups that care about the same things I care about,” he said. “In that sense, accepting money from PACs is not that different from accepting money from individuals who also believe in the same things that you believe in.” However, he is clear that a donation to him does not entitle the donor to anything from him once he is in office.

Although VanOstran is focused and driven, his confidence that he will make it to November could hinder rather than help. It’s fair to say that VanOstran is doing everything right. He shows up to listen, has raised significantly more than any of his primary opponents, and has won endorsements from many elected officials and liberal groups. His campaign is calculated, and no move comes without thorough critical thinking. However, this makes it very hard to see “Cort Unplugged,” and I wonder if his enthusiasm will carry over into office. If elected, VanOstran could become one of the most productive representatives we’ve seen in a while, but if his calculations fail, it could mean massive losses for progressives across the board.

Overall, VanOstran is a well-qualified candidate who would certainly give Ann Wagner a run for her money. He knows the law, he’s young, he’s charismatic and is the antithesis of everything Wagner stands for. He also is familiar with how to work the system to get what you need out of it. His calculated campaign based on hard work and perseverance makes him a force to be reckoned with in this race. If he does make it to the general election, not only will this be a hell of a race, but, conceivably, a very close one.